Magazine article The Christian Century

The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality, and Nazi Germany

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality, and Nazi Germany

Article excerpt

The Doubled Life of

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality, and Nazi Germany

By Diane Reynolds

Cascade Books, 466 pp., $53.00

Midcentury biographical conventions encouraged the effacement of women's lives. Since Eberhard Bethge's monumental biography, Bonhoeffer's story has been viewed as unfolding within a male-only world. Details of Confessing Church politics and theological analysis have animated decades of Bonhoeffer studies, but few scholars have looked deeply into the emotional, interpersonal, and psychological textures of Bonhoeffer's life. Diane Reynolds looks beneath the surface.

The book would be worth the purchase price simply for its insistence on noticing the women present at every turn in Bonhoeffer's life. Two such women are Elisabeth Zinn, Bonhoeffer's neighbor and colleague in theological studies, and Berta Schulze, his personal and professional assistant in London. Reynolds demonstrates that Zinn and Schulze were genuine theological peers to Bonhoeffer, as Bethge's biography hinted at. Most accounts of his life treat them (if at all) wrongly as his first fiancee and housekeeper, respectively.

It is, however, in exploring Bonhoeffer's relationships with a central triad of women--and, at the center of his life, with Bethge--that Reynolds's work moves into original interpretive territory. She dives into the theologian's very close connection with his twin sister, Sabine, his collaboration with and dependence on his benefactor Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, and his puzzling relationship with his fiancee Maria von Wedemeyer.

Reynolds devotes to Wedemeyer a level of attention that no previous biographer has given, including an appendix tracing her life and the progress of her relationship with Bonhoeffer from 1935 to 1945. Wedemeyer's agency, subjectivity, and energy leap from the page as Reynolds shows through meticulous reconstruction of their engagement how strained and confusing it surely was to both participants. The affection and, on Wedemeyer's part, intensity of emotion evident in many letters mask a deeper incompatibility that would almost surely have led to the breaking of their engagement had Bonhoeffer survived the war.

Woven through these relationships with women is a central absence: any woman at the heart of Bonhoeffer's sexual desire. Instead, Reynolds clearly shows Bethge's centrality as the focus of Bonhoeffer's relational affection and erotic energy. She respectfully diverges from Charles Marsh's recent portrayal of Bonhoeffer as effete, sketching him instead as a "man's man." Although he depended emotionally on Sabine and those he tried to enlist into her role after her marriage, he was comfortable in the male elite of his privileged circles and--but for that odd disinclination to marry--very much a traditional male. …

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